So back in the middle of June or thereabouts, I received an email from Trace Conger. Mr. Conger had seen my post about the Shamus Awards. His novel The Shadow Broker had made the final ballot for best independently published novel, and would I be interested in reviewing it? I said I would, but I didn’t think I could get to it before sometime in August as I had a pretty full slate. He said that would be fine and sent me an electronic copy. (Many thanks, sir.)
In fairness, I can’t say whether The Shadow Broker is deserving of the award simply because I haven’t read any of the other independently published titles on the ballot. But I can say that it certainly deserves to be on the ballot and should be hard to beat.
Finn Harding is a down on his luck PI, or rather ex-PI, operating in Cincinnati. He did something unethical that resulted in his license being yanked. He crossed the line because he wanted the money he was offered. His then wife, now ex-wife, is a drop dead gorgeous nurse. Finn was scared that some doctor would come along and offer her more than he could in terms of toys and creature comforts.
Now his ex-wife has a doctor as a live-in boyfriend while Finn sleeps on a rented boat that is a far cry from Travis McGee’s Busted Flush. He’s trying to finish a Joe Lansdale novel. He drinks coffee like some of his 1940s counterparts drank hard liquor. No word on whether he listens to radio station WKRP.
And Finn has crossed more ethical lines. He does what are best described as skip traces for unsavory underworld characters. The people he finds will, as he says, soon disappear again and this time they won’t be found. He calls himself Death’s GPS and rationalizes his actions as crooks killing crooks, not innocent people.
So when’s he’s asked to find the blackmailer of a man selling sensitive information on the black market, he doesn’t hesitate he even though he knows it will probably result in the man’s death. He doesn’t stop to think if the deaths will be limited to just one man, or even the bad guys.
Before it’s over Finn will have crossed lines he never imagined crossing…
The Shadow Broker is a fast moving novel with plenty of double crosses (Donald E. Westlake would have been proud). I read a few Richard Laymon novels before I decided his brand of horror was too raw for my taste, but one thing he did was write the best, most realistic sounding dialogue I’d ever seen. Until now. The dialogue in this book sounds like two (or more) people talking. Especially when Finn’s ex tells him why she is with the doctor and not him. (That’s gonna leave a mark on his heart.) Conger manages to show up people in their complexity, and the result is a cast of individuals.
Not all of the chapters are from Finn’s point of view, but the ones that are really flesh out Finn. In spite of his ethical and moral shortcomings, of which there are many, Finn is a very sympathetic character. He wants to spend time with his daughter. He is supportive of his father, even when the man complicates his life. He just needs to break this habit of doing things he shouldn’t because the money looks good. Some prices are too high to pay.
The Shadow Broker isn’t all pulp action. There are some deep issues about choices and responsibility that Conger addresses. And unlike some writers, who should take a page from his playbook, he does so in a way that enhances the story rather than interrupt.
Some series are static. They can be read in any order, and the characters rarely if ever change. This is not going to be one of those series. Read this one. Find out if Finn ever manages to finish that Joe Lansdale novel (I ain’t telling.)
In closing, a word to Trace Conger. That last chapter
was not nice was nicely done. What are trying do, put me back on blood pressure medicine? That was one of the most effective hooks to read the next book in the series I’ve seen in quite a while. So write faster. I’m looking forward to it. I want to seen how Finn handles what’s going to be coming his way. And I want to know what secret his father is hiding because I’m sure there is one.